SAT Essay Prompts: 3 Objectives for Success

August 29, 2016 

In March 2016, the College Board redesigned the entire SAT, including the writing portion of the test. The new SAT Essay section asks students to read a provided source text of approximately two pages, analyze it, and write a response. This is in contrast to students presenting their own opinions and arguments in response to a short prompt, which was the focus of the old test.


This is considered a more difficult and in-depth task, so the length of time allotted has increased—from 25 minutes to 50 minutes.

The College Board has outlined the three criteria upon which essays will be judged:

  • Reading
  • Analysis
  • Writing

Each area receives a subscore of 1 to 4 from each of two readers, and the subscores are then added together for a total score range of 6 to 24.

Another difference is that the SAT Essay is now optional—the essay score is reported separately from the other scores on the test, meaning the essay score does not factor into a student’s combined 400 to1600 scaled score on the rest of the SAT.

To prepare for the SAT Essay, students should work on each of the three objectives. Let’s take a look at ways students can improve in each area.

Read the Text—and the Prompt—Carefully

Before diving into the source text, it is important to review the prompt carefully. Students should be sure they understand what they are being asked to do so they can showcase their understanding later during analysis. The prompt always outlines what to look for in the text:

As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

By reviewing these ideas, students will be able to start analyzing as they read the passage. Following the text, there will be additional instructions that should be reviewed before analysis and writing. These instructions will explain exactly what should and should not be included in the essay. An example of these instructions is below:

Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade his audience that [the main point of argument of the article]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his or her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his or her] audience.

According to the College Board, a successful essay shows that you understood the passage and its central ideas and demonstrates that comprehension through the “skillful use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both).” As you are reading a source text, get into the habit of underlining or circling important words or phrases that you may want to incorporate into your essay.

Analyze the Passage

A strong essay also needs to demonstrate an analysis of the text—in other words, an understanding of how the author builds an argument and how he or she uses the elements described in the prompt to support it. Students should not just summarize the argument, but also explain what specific techniques the author uses. Instead of taking a position on the passage, as students were asked to do on the old SAT, students are now asked to describe how the author makes his or her argument and whether the techniques were effective. Here are some questions you may want to consider: What is the author’s tone? How does word choice come into play? What emotions in the reader is the writer appealing to? Does the writer use facts or personal anecdotes or hypotheticals to bolster his or her argument? On what note does the source text end, and is the writer ultimately successful in his or her objective?

Follow the Conventions of the English Language

Finally, the essay should be well written. An essay worthy of a 4 (the highest subscore that can be awarded by a reviewer) will include a precise central claim, a skillful introduction and conclusion, well-chosen, precise vocabulary, a variety of sentence structures, and will be virtually free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. It’s important that students hold themselves to these high standards as they work through practice prompts so they can perform up to the same standards on test day. 

With an understanding of what the SAT essay graders are looking for, students should practice meeting each of these objectives on practice SAT essay prompts. It’s also a good idea for a parent, teacher, or tutor to review a student’s practice essays to point out where he or she may need improvement in one or more of these areas. Ultimately, honing your SAT essay-writing skills will not only help you raise your SAT essay score, but it will likely help improve your writing skills in other areas of your life too, such as when crafting your next English or history term paper.

For a complete look at the SAT Essay scoring guide, click here.





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